DWIGHT — Dwight is one step closer to seeing the opening of a federal detention center that would house up to 1,200 immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally.
The Dwight Planning Commission recommended the Village Board work with Immigration Centers of America to open the facility just outside the village boundaries.
The vote came after the commission heard three hours of testimony Tuesday night from immigrants, attorneys, a former police officer and others in “the longest public hearing we’ve ever had,” said a village official at St. Patrick's Catholic Church's parish hall.
The three issues up for discussion were the petition for annexation of an 88-acre tract near Interstate 55 and Illinois 17 just outside the Livingston County village; a zoning application to use the land for industrial purposes; and an annexation agreement between the village and the Immigration Centers of America.
The commission voted in favor of each measure, with a unanimous vote for the petition and 3-2 votes for the zoning application and annexation agreement.
The Village Board will vote on the matter on Monday.
Frank Cortina, attorney for the Virginia-based Immigration Centers of America, highlighted the amenities of the detention center in Farmville, Va., calling it “the Cadillac of detention centers.”
The Dwight facility, which would be managed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), would include exercise equipment, medical care, visitation privileges, legal services and religious and recreational opportunities.
The rooms at the detention center would be unlocked, if the facility is managed similar to the Farmville complex.
“I think they’re an answer to what some of ... my concerns are and that is how immigrants are treated in this country,” Cortina said.
Chief operating officer Duane Ragsdale said the detention centers are “a compassionate, humane alternative” to jailing.
The facility would house male detainees awaiting immigration hearings. Those who face criminal charges would be held in county jails, not in the detention center.
More than 25 people signed up to speak, and several denounced Cortina’s claims, calling the center a prison that strips away freedoms.
"It is a blindness of the soul and a bankrupt morality because wrong is wrong and a golden cage is still a cage,” said Juan Carlos Hernandez of East Chicago, Ind.
More than 100 people attended the meeting, including residents of Dwight and activists from cities across Illinois protesting the detention center. The attendees overflowed from the meeting room in the Village Hall so the meeting had to be moved to the nearby church.
Before the public hearing, people from Bloomington, Peoria, Rockford, Champaign, Chicago and its suburbs chanted “Do what’s right; no ICE in Dwight” and carried signs with the same message.
“Nobody should profit from human misery, and no community should welcome a for-profit immigration prison,” said Fred Tsao, senior policy counsel of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
Cortina and other representatives for the Immigration Centers of America said the economic advantages of the facility would make it a benefit to community, not a detriment.
“It will result in two new roadways. It will result in two miles of a main sewer interceptor line. It will have approximately 280 jobs that it’ll bring to your community,” Cortina said.
“But most importantly in my aspect of it, it fits within your big comprehensive plan," he added. "You want business and industry in that area; this is an industrial project that we’re recommending.”
Cortina also said the facility would add $20 million in new assessed value to the village's property tax base.
The promise of local jobs is a point that stood out for many Dwight residents.
“We lost the prison several years ago and that really hurts us as far as jobs and something like this could be a real benefit for that,” said Village President Jared Anderson ahead of the hearing.
Mark Scott, a former Dwight police officer, said he supported the detention center and the economic growth it could bring to the village.
“I’m asking that the board pass these resolutions. Get us some industry in here; get us some jobs in here...Let’s get some growth in here; let’s get some $73,000-a-year jobs,” he said in reference to the salary for employees of the detention center as estimated by Immigration Centers of America.
Immigration Centers of America was founded in 2008 and operates the Farmville site. The company has several pending contracts to build other facilities and would have to be the recipient of a formal bid from the government in order to move forward.
The proposal does not include the vacant Dwight Correctional Center, a state women's prison that was closed in 2013 by the Illinois Department of Corrections in a cost-cutting move.